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You can't watch a game and just forget about the refs anymore, the same as you can't watch a game and just forget about the brain damage, the stadium robberies, the Rice / Peterson / McDonald / Hardy / Next Name Up Goes Here imbroglios... and, yeah, I know, I know, we're all watching the game anyway. Might as well pick 'em. See if we're in line with the show's writers.
And with that... on to the picks!
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BALTIMORE (+7) at New England
The case for Baltimore: Past success against New England, and even on the road, with two wins here in the last five seconds, and a last-second defeat in the lone Patriot win. Dominant defensive front seven, with a secondary that's playing its best ball lately, and if you don't have to blitz to get QB pressure, guarding the Patriots' rather ordinary group of receivers seems a lot more possible. QB Joe Flacco plays better in the playoffs, and RB Justin Forsett gives them a credible 3-down threat to go with RB Bernard Pierce. WR Steve Smith Sr. had a solid game last week and a history of clutch performances. WR Torrey Smith is a DPI magnet and true deep threat. P Sam Koch and K Justin Tucker head up one of the better STs in the playoffs.
The case against Baltimore: As with all road teams this weekend, facing a team coming off a bye, with a serious home field advantage; that alone puts them about a touchdown behind. Offense can sputter against quality defenses, especially if the rather ordinary running game isn't firing. Offensive line isn't a strength, and Flacco can throw the dig a bigger hole INT with the best of them. As with most defenses that punch you in the mouth / play with emotion, can really deflate if the opposition has early success, and don't usually get the better of the refs.
The case for New England: Annihilated the Ravens in Week 16 last year; when they scheme and play well, they can run away from this team in a hurry. Deep RB corps allows them to play the hot hand, especially in short yardage. Dominant offense in the red zone, with TE Rob Gronkowski and QB Tom Brady combining ESP with size to border on unfair. Best coached team in the NFL for the better part of a decade and counting. Best defense in years, especially in the secondary.
The case against New England: They do not really have a deep burner to exploit the Ravens biggest weakness, which is coverage against deep throws; the best among the WR crew is Brandon LaFell, who isn't all that great when 100%, and currently isn't. The constant RB carousel hides the fact that none of their people are all that good. Generally win when the short passing game generates YAC, which is the best thing that Baltimore prevents. Might be a bit of a paper tiger, given the usual cotton-soft nature of winning the AFC LEast, and also might not be playing their best ball of the season, given how much they struggled against the Jets and Bills in the late weeks of the year.
The prediction: Football is rarely as simple as people make it out to be, but this game is the exception to the rule. If Baltimore can get pressure on QB Tom Brady, they'll stay close and cover the spread, and maybe even win. If they don't, New England will score enough to make the Ravens take too many chances and turn the ball over. I think Mssrs. Suggs, Dumervil and McPhee get there often enough to make things close. But not, alas, with enough leeway to get past the inevitable referee fix moment. There's no way we're not getting Brady-Manning next week, folks. Too much money in it.
Patriots 24, Ravens 20
Carolina at SEATTLE (-10.5)
The case for Carolina: Playing their best ball of the year by leaps and bounds. Their game travels, with strong defense and a running game helping to take the starch out of opposing crowds. At 8-8-1 and still playing football with just 7 other teams, absolutely playing with house money and no pressure. If there's a team that could open with an onside kick and/or fake punt tricksiness, it's this one. Seattle has struggled against strong defenses. TE Gregg Olsen, their best receiving threat, might be able to deliver a big game, and a patient running attack can wear the fast but small Seattle defense out. QB Cam Newton can change the game with his legs.
The case against Carolina: Just, well, not that good, as befitting an 8-8-1 team from the NFL's worst division. WRs Kelvin Benjamin and Jericho Cotchery are no match for the Seattle DBs; long downs and distance are going to be impossible without acts of officiating, and those generally don't happen to Seattle at home. Mediocre STs could come into play here, and once you commit turnovers against this defense, that's when the wilding starts. Newton isn't accurate enough to take constant safe small chunks to sustain long drives.
The case for Seattle: Home with a bye, in the toughest home field in the NFL. Defending Super Bowl champions, playing their best ball of the year. Strongest power running game in the NFL, and patient enough to keep at it. QB Russell Wilson is the best mobile QB in the league, in that he gets big chunks of yards with his legs, rarely takes a big hit, and extends plays downfield. Best defense in the league for several years running, with speed rushers and the ability to blitz due to the best in class secondary.
The case against Seattle: Ordinary offensive line and below ordinary WR corps, not that this is dramatically different from last year. Defense isn't quite up to last year's levels, especially if you are physical, patient, and make no mistakes. That describes Carolina on a very good day.
The prediction: Close until it isn't, and then it will get ugly. I can't see Carolina scoring more than 17 points under any circumstance, or possessing the ball for long enough to avoid getting Marshawn Lynch-ed. Add in the inevitable late pick and/or defensive score, and we'll get to the cover.
Seattle 31, Carolina 17
DALLAS (+5.5) at Green Bay
The case for Dallas: Refs and league may be fully invested in them going all the way. Strong power running game should be able to move the sticks against this defense. TE Jason Witten is resurgent, and WR Dez Bryant has no good matchup on the Green Bay defense, even independent of his all-powerful referee changing skills. Strong STs, and the defense isn't too bad against the running game. Undefeated on the road this year. WR Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley have been effective, and QB Tony Romo has had his best year as a pro.
The case against Dallas: Should not have won last week's game, for reasons that the NFL has spent much of the week cataloging at length. Might receive a ton of payback calls just to show all of us that the games aren't fixed after all. (Insert the eye roll here.) Defensive secondary has no good matchups for either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. Offensive line was tossed around last week at home, and might have trouble against imaginative blitzes and crowd noise on the road.
The case for Green Bay: At home, off a bye, playing in brutal cold: this all works well for the Pack. Could put up 40 points or more against this defense in this setting. Defense has been better against the run since shifting LB Clay Matthews inside, which means more of this game will come down to Romo. Historically, that doesn't work out well for Dallas.
The case against Green Bay: QB Aaron Rodgers is not 100%, and might not have played at all if the game was last week. If he's unable to go four quarters, Green Bay loses all margin for error. Defense really isn't all that great, and could spend a considerable amount of time not getting off the field and/or keeping Dallas in the game, especially if the refs go holding / DPI happy.
The prediction: After last week's unprecedented screw job of the shafted Lions, it's impossible to have much faith in any outcome involving Dallas... but the job here is to pick games, and the most likely event is a close game that pleases the media and keeps the monster TV ratings. That points to Dallas covering the spread, and if you really want to think about finding an ice floe, going all the way to the Super Bowl to face New England in my Perfect Storm of Football Hate. For now, I'll just try to talk myself into the fact that Green Bay has fans, too.
Green Bay 34, Dallas 30
Indianapolis at DENVER (-7)
The case for Indy: Pinball offense potential, with QB Andrew Luck able to make any throw and move the chains with his legs. Playing with house money, given Luck's age and the road setting. Luck showed uncommon patience last week with underneath throws, which he might have to go to again this week. TE Cody Fleener could be a strong plus matchup here, given injuries to Denver's LBs. WR T.Y. Hilton has been dynamic and effective on deep balls, and Luck's got an arm that can get it to him all over the field. K Adam Vinateri has been replaced by a cyborg with a titanium foot.
The case against Indy: Ordinary defense, especially on the road. Hilton is prone to drops. Worst RBs in the playoffs due to injury and the continued existence of Trent Richardson; rookie Dan "Boom" Herron is also fumble-prone. Pass rush is intermittent at best, coaching has not covered itself in glory recently. Secondary WRs are either old and fading (Reggie Wayne), middle-aged and fading (Hakeem Nicks), or young and erratic (Donte Moncrief). Strong sense that they are 1-3 years away; might not have the urgency required to come up with a road win.
The case for Denver: Home, bye, altitude. TE Julian Thomas might finally be healthy after the bye week for his ankle problem, which could solve a lot of red zone issues. RB CJ Anderson has been Denver's best back this year, and should be fresh after the bye. The Colts can be had by this running game. Strong secondary with a good pass rush could force turnovers. Indy has no one to match up with WR DeMaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. If QB Peyton Manning is right, he could go for big numbers here.
The case against Denver: Manning hasn't looked right for six weeks, and might be hiding an injury. If he plays poorly, this is suddenly and shockingly an ordinary offense, especially as the OL has never been as good as Manning's fast release has made them look. Julian Thomas hasn't been the same since the ankle problem. HC Jon Fox has blown games like this one before, and so has Manning. Even when they were going good earlier this year, had a hard time holding leads, and have gone to a conservative running game that limits their presumed explosiveness. Manning's playoff record is downright abysmal, and given his age, declining arm strength and the setting, he really could crap the bed here.
The prediction: I don't like either of these teams to win next week, no matter what the matchup is, so the pick is more a matter of weakness. I'll take Denver to cover without an awful lot of confidence, only because I think the Colts are going to throw it a ton, and hence be more prone to turning it over. If the weather isn't good, it also hurts the home dome team more. Finally, note how much the Colts struggled in the red zone at home last week, against a defense that doesn't rush the passer well. Expect Vinateri to get too much work this week, and for it to catch up to them.
Broncos 28, Colts 19
Last week: 1-3
Year to date: 126-129-4